Let me preface this with, I am a die hard New York Knicks fan and Patrick Ewing fan. Michael Jordan was the bane of my existence growing up. In NBA fandom, Jordan was the IPod and everybody else was an MP3 Player. Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks were Zune. The Zune’s defeat to the Ipod was the most memorable and painful as a Zune Pass user much like the Knicks memorable defeats to Jordan. With that context, I was very underwhelmed with the idea of re-living the Knicks’ defeat in the 90’s and subjecting myself to another Jordan propaganda film. The one thing everybody needed was another documentary about the 90’s Bulls, but here we are. While I expected the Knicks to be buried once again by the Bulls, this documentary has done the opposite. Even though Michael Jordan himself refuses to acknowledge the greatness of his peers and adversaries, the documentary does a great job of propping up MJ’s challengers.
It feels like Jordan doesn’t realize that if you emasculate and trash your competition, it makes your success over them less meaningful. I would contend that one of the reasons that George Mikan and even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar don’t come up in GOAT conversations is because the average fan doesn’t think they had worthwhile competition. Every time Jordan is asked about an opponent he literally laughs them off the stage (see- Gary Payton). The film makers knew better. They had painstakingly made every opponent the Bulls faced seem relevant from the Charlotte Hornets to the Phoenix Suns in the Finals. I might be showing my age, but what compels me towards loving and favoring 90’s basketball is that I think I agree with the film-makers. The 90’s were the most talented and competitive time in NBA history. Every team had multiple stars and a lot of them had future Hall of Famers. Jordan had to run up against Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Reggie Miller, Patrick Ewing, and that just scratches the surface. The Hawks were winning 50 games at the time with Dominique Wilkins and later Steve Smith, the Heat were coming into their own in the late 90’s with Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway. Shaq and Penny were tearing the East to pieces. That gauntlet of talent is what makes Jordan’s dominance so breathtaking. When you think about who Kobe played in the finals it’s bleak…The first 3-peat was Pacers, Sixers, Nets. Shaq had 0 centers that were anywhere near his level and Kobe was really facing Jalen Rose, Allen Iverson, and Jason Kidd…then the next title run for Kobe was against the Magic with Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson, and the Celtics who were legitimately a great team. The competition doesn’t come close.
What’s most validating about all this as a Knicks fan is the one team Michael Jordan always seem to mention when talking about who to prepare for and who to be ready for is the Knicks. It’s been incredibly heartening hearing MJ and the Bulls talk about how the Knicks (and Pistons)pushed them to hit the weight room more. How the Garden was the only arena that mattered. Patrick Ewing, John Starks, and Charles Oakley are looking like a million bucks in this documentary. Charles Smith still looks awful. He earned that. I am still bitter. Even with Smith’s inability to convert, that moment only matters because the battles were so close. The Ewing-era Knicks are always short changed in today’s media coverage. Sports coverage has been watered down to, “Did you win the title?” and “Are you the Goat?” A 50-win season that ends in the Conference finals is a failure. A great player who couldn’t get over the hump is defined by what they didn’t do. It’s hard for my son to imagine but there was a time when the Knicks played and I had 0 doubt that they would win. The Knicks winning 50 games and making the playoffs was the expectation and not the exception. Now if the Knicks crack 40 wins in a season I am in cardiac arrest because the odds of Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton pulling that magic out of the Dolan-era feels impossible.
A lot of times it feels like Ewing and the nineties Knicks get shortchanged because they ran into Jordan. Then they ran into Hakeem and the Rockets and lost in 7 games because John Starks forgot how to play basketball….still bitter. Losing to better teams is not wrong, the Rockets and the Bulls were better than the Knicks. John Starks was a CBA player, a journeyman at best and was the Knicks starting shooting guard. Kenny Smith and of course Jordan were much better players. The Knicks were tough. They controlled the pace, slowed the game down, forced teams to account for every possession. Much like the Tony Bennett Virginia Cavaliers, a 5 point deficit to the Knicks felt like a 12 point deficit. The Wahoos won a title…the Knicks did not.
This documentary has turned the tides for the Knicks and all of Jordan’s rivals. ESPN is interviewing Ewing, and Payton, and looking at those teams records in a different light. I heard Chris Broussard shout down everybody on Fox defending Ewing’s career. Stephen A. Smith and Mark Jackson got into a shouting match on whether Ewing should have a statue in front of MSG (he should). This is wild and unprecedented. The Last Dance has done the impossible, they turned Jordan’s adversaries from cannon fodder to heroes in their own right. It’s been a true joy to watch.